The Bail-Out
With the Automotive Three begging a bail-out, following a lemming-herd of financial institutions, everyone, it seems, wants on the bail-out gravy train. So why not our own kind – so to speak?
Paul Greenburg, in the December 12, 2008, episode of the New York Times Sunday’s Book Review, asks: Why not bail out writers, too? It’s a humorous piece, of course, but stranger rationales have been put forward recently for bail-outs. If you have the Christmas Blues, here’s a bit of with pour vous.
Domaine Perdu and The Chapter as Organizer
In the December 2008 issue of Writer’s Chronicle magazine, two articles intrigue yours truly.
One, Novelistic Landscapes and the Domaine Perdu, lays claim to various tropes in creative writing that open the reader to the “magical-sensual world of extreme infancy.” In other words, a myth of sorts that urges a return to a lost, perfect world. One example that connected vividly for me, appeared in Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms, in which he depicts a idyllic mountain scene which, we know will soon burst with warfare. But we also know that in the moment of its depiction it transcends our limited view of life in the “real” world.
It’s a tool to use in your writing – or to recognize in your reading – says author Tim Weed. But tread lightly – it’s easily abused.
Another article, by Paul Graham and Mary Stewart Atwell, offers four approaches to the chapter as an organizer for your novel.
First, mention upcoming characters parenthetically in early chapters as a way to ground them in the story and to spread out their effects and roles.
Next, in a rather static novel, you may worry about boring the reader. One way out is not to tell the story linearly, but to offer your “day in the life” in scenic chapters, perhaps, in which various aspects of this static character exploration are dwelled upon.
Third, create what the authors call negative space. Orchestrate significant breaks in time, jumping, say, from 1948 to 1957. Here, you’re connecting things that should be connected for your plot or characters, but not in evenly dispersed time. The chapters may refer to things already accomplished in the book, or bode things to come.
Finally, and similarly to negative space, the author might create a coda in a chapter, which refers – for emphasis – to something said in passing in a previous chapter. Here, the object is to add “narrative reliability,” or deeper significance to the story or character depictions.
These are quick and dirty descriptions of these chapter modes, and possibly not altogether accurate. But you get the picture of what a chapter can do for both reader and writer.
Going Electronic
Miz Hawks mentioned in a comment to one of my previous posts the possibility of going “Kindle.” For those hidebound to the paper page, Kindle is a contraption devised by the Amazon juggernaut to create new possibilities for both reader and writer. It can handle a large bookshelf’s worth of books, and operates similarly to a “real” book.
Am I ready? Yes, in theory. But many books I might want, particularly for literary reference or historical research, aren’t yet available.
How about you? Any thoughts?
‘Tis the season, as we all know. The Missus and I are winging toward Texas and Louisiana to visit kinfolks. Next post will be near or after the new year.
Have a Merry and a Happy!
Oh, and the long-sought MLA degree will be in my grateful hands on this December 20th.


Roberto Bolaño

If you’re a struggling writer, or have often pictured such a pitiful specimen of humanity, you likely have in mind a footloose type (and here I’m singling out the male of the species), long of hair, unkempt clothes, cigarette between first two fingers of one hand, typing on a shabby computer in a dingy, paper-strewn flat. To complete the picture, there should be a grimy coffee mug—coffee black, of course, and seasoned with a dollop of cheap whiskey.
I invariably seek out pictures of writers I enjoy. In doing so, I rarely see this sort of person staring back at me anymore. Instead I see Yuppie types, perhaps with professorial looks, peering over glasses. The younger ones, trying to re-live their halcyon days of literary struggle do strike the existential posture quite often, with a five-day beard, hair uncombed, wearing a Rolling Stones tee-shirt. But the pose seems just that – a pose.
Perhaps the last writers to really exemplify this stereotype I'm conjuring here were the Beats of the fifties and sixties. But one male writer of recent years seems to have actually lived the Hemingway-esque stereotype: Roberto Bolaño.
Bolaño has popped up on my literary screen a couple of times these past years, but he hardly seemed memorable—largely because I failed to look deeply into his life and work. Only with the publication of his last, posthumous novel, 2666, did I really dig in.
He was born in 1953 in Chile, grew up in Mexico City and, typical to the South and Central American literary undercurrents, became a revolutionary and a writer. He returned to Chile with the Allende government’s overthrow, was jailed, managed an escape, and returned to Mexico City. This time, he founded a literary group inspired by the Beats and Dadaists bent on combating the bourgeois lifestyle and all art associated with it.
He began publishing, first as a poet, then moved to Spain, where he all but disappeared into a string of menial jobs: dishwasher, bellhop, garbage collector. But these were only for life support—he was still writing. By the early nineties, he was publishing again – with a vengeance.
Soon, he’d published three story collections and ten (ten, that’s right) novels. Then in 2003, he died—in true angst-ridden scuffed-shoe writer fashion—of liver failure.
His works are, from a cursory survey, as much driftwood as his lifestyle. An early, roughly fashioned novel, By Night In Chile, depicted the ravings of a dying Jesuit priest. Another, Nazi Literature in the Americas, invented an encyclopedia of imagined fascist writers. Other than their war crimes, these expatriate Nazis seem as comfortable in South American society as the next person.
Then the fascination with detective stories. Bolaño’s book, The Savage Detectives, broke literary ground for him, and set the stage for 2666, perhaps his most daring—and difficult for the reader—piece of writing.
Always up for an adventure between the covers, I’m in possession of 2666. Sometime in the future, we’ll talk again of Roberto Bolaño.

Gentlemen Of The Road, by Michael Chabon

Whiling away several hours in Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport between Vienna and Atlanta, I wandered into an airport bookstore, hoping to do some market research on titles carried there, the sort of books the store felt travelers would want to read. Several intrigued me, but I settled on this one.
Why? the marketer in me asked later. Was it the black-and-white ink drawing cover? Was it the book’s short length (less than 200 pages), hoping I could read it on the flight? Was it the “swords-and-adventure” story it promised? Or was it the author’s credentials (he won a Pulitzer in 2001)?
As it turned out, my draw was none of these. Instead, its setting aligned itself nicely with the trip I had just been on to Eastern Europe, and the novel I’m about to finish, concerning WWII’s Eastern Front conflict. However, its time frame is a millennium earlier.
The storyline, serialized in the New York Times Book Section prior to publication as a novel, involved a large black man and a skinny Frank, con men both, who steal horses and gyp the locals as they pass through the strange, Euro-Asian countryside. As they travel and bilk, they come across a fugitive prince, intent on reclaiming his kingdom from an unscrupulous warlord and save it from a band of marauding Rus’. The Rus’, incidentally, are reputed to be a Scandinavian people and the progenitors of many of the Russian groupings. Needless to say, everything works out.
There’s not much in the way of character development here, nor does the author dwell deeply on the history of early peoples in Eurasian territory. Instead, it’s a fairly lightweight adventure story – charmingly fun to read. There are enough plot twists to keep the reader turning pages, but the thing that makes the book a worthwhile read is Chabon’s prose. One rarely finds his sort of eloquence in novels these days, either in pulp or purported literature. If you’re a lover of books that enclose many well-turned phrases, then this book would be worth its paperback price.
Particularly enthralling is Chabon’s first chapter, in which his two main characters, Zelikman, the Frank, and Amram, the African, scam a group of bored men in a tavern. Here, both story and prose gleam like purloined gold. And Chabon knows not to try to extend this literary intensity for too long. He clearly understands that readers gather the tone of a book from the first chapter or so, and tend to project that into succeeding pages. One might praise William Gay and Cormac McCarthy for the constant gleam of their works’ prose, but it’s the variety of eloquence and tone that makes good writing resonate with a reader.
I should mention two other things: this book is generally described as Jewish literature. It is, of course, and if you tend to shy away from the sophisticated neuroses of Roth, Bellow, et al, then give this book a try.
A rarity among novels, this book comes complete with illustrations. I think that’s a great embellishment, although some may see the story and sketches as something of a literary comic. The visual arts are increasingly a part of fiction writing, so why not add illustrations?